On March 7, 1970, President Richard Nixon gave a speech that changed the direction of the American space program. “We must think of [space activities] as part of a continuing process… and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy,” he said. “Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities.” While his words seem to reflect my own systems approach, Nixon was actually demoting space as a national priority. Rather than occupying a privileged place in the federal budget, he said that the space program must “be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.” In other words, space must compete with other priorities.
Fair enough. But the decision to back away from the larger ambitions of space meant throwing away our ability to send people to the Moon. It meant throwing away all the equipment we need to land and operate on the surface. And it meant mothballing the most powerful rocket ever built, the Saturn V. All for the sake of saving money for other priorities. I believe that future generations will see the decision to turn back from “the Moon as an act of sheer lunacy—one akin to the Chinese burning their world-dominating fleet of ships in the early fifteenth century.
Yet it would be a mistake to place the blame for the decision solely on President Nixon. Most Americans supported it. After all, many thought, we were done. We had been to the Moon. We achieved the goal for the sake of achieving it, without a larger, compelling context. The next great destination would be Mars; unlike the Moon, the planet could not possibly be reached within a decade. Besides, Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts had set foot on solid extraterrestrial ground. The enormous feat of getting people to Mars and back would accomplish essentially the same thing: people setting foot on extraterrestrial ground. We had already met an astonishing, audacious, mind-bending goal. Meanwhile, we forgot what Apollo had achieved besides the Moon. The program had stimulated the economy, fostered the next generation of technology, and inspired future dotcom billionaires to set up shop in the Gravity Well.
After Apollo came the Space Shuttle, with the goal of creating a cargo truck to low Earth orbit. One of the most complex machines ever built by humans, it was also conceived without an overarching vision regarding the program’s national benefits. The Space Shuttle helped build and maintain the International Space Station. The ISS, at least, had a larger, noble purpose: to bring many nations of the world together in a common venture. And yet both programs have come to be seen as a dead end. They have fostered great technology and led to scientific discoveries. But Americans aren’t being shown the benefits of these space programs besides those of space itself. We don’t see the advantages to America, right here, right now.
Our space goals remain orphans, with singular missions denied a larger destiny, lying outside a positive direction for our nation. Americans need more than an admirable scientific or technological feat. We need an even bigger quest—one that, at the same time, reaps immediate rewards. What could that possibly be?
The answer lies in the Gravity Well. It is the Gravity Well.